Dr. Thomas Gallaudet founded the first free school for the deaf in the United States, the American School for the Deaf, in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817. He is shown in this naturalistic sculptural portrait with Alice Cogswell, the child who sparked his interest in educating the deaf. She concentrates intensely, gesturing imitatively to form the sign for the letter "A" with her right hand. Dr. Gallaudet developed his sign language by utilizing elements of an English system of oral speech and a French method based on communication employed by a Spanish order of monks vowed to silence. Funds for the memorial were raised by Gallaudet's son, Edward, and came from the deaf in every territory and state in the country.
From a small plaster model that Daniel Chester French finished in November 1887, studio artisans made this full scale plaster the following year. With some minor changes, French had it ready for the foundry by late November. The first bronze casting (1889) is on the grounds of the nation's only liberal arts school for the hearing impaired, Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. (formerly Columbia Institute for Deaf-Mutes). Another casting (1924) is at the Connecticut school.
The plaster is more than just a means to produce a bronze statue; it is an artwork in its own right. Not only is it one of French's significant early works, it is valuable too as it reveals the sculptor's original conception of the piece before it was cast in bronze, especially in the variety of surface details the plaster allows. The sculpture is also innovative, as it presents a narrative portrait of an actual event without the customary allegorical implications.
When the expatriate American author Henry James saw a photograph of the large plaster in 1889, he wrote French, "I am delighted that work of such high distinction & refinement should come from the country which you appear, deludedly, to suspect me of not being in a hurry to return to. I feel in a tremendous hurry, when I think of the beautiful things you are doing-and when I do go back, the desire to see them will not leave me without a part in the adventure."
Lorado Taft obtained the original plaster from the artist in 1926, with the intention of putting it in his "Dream Museum" of great sculpture from all periods of history. "I wonder if you are ready now to receive contributions to your American Gallery?" French had asked him the previous September. "The Gallaudet group has been successfully cast in bronze and the plaster model is now at the foundry, and of course they are anxious to get rid of it.... I don't want to embarrass you by unloading my stuff on you."
French, born to a prominent New England family, studied in Europe and in the United States with William Rimmer, William Morris Hunt, and, briefly, John Quincy Adams Ward. Among his most famous monuments are The Minute Man at the bridge in Concord, Massachusetts; the Alma Mater on the steps of Columbia University, New York; and the great marble seated figure of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.